Sen. Ted Cruz
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Credit: Elliott School of International Affairs

WASHINGTON — One day after President Donald Trump signed into law the first NASA authorization bill in more than six years, a leading senator said he is planning a new, long-term authorization bill for the agency.

In a speech at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation breakfast here March 22, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he also plans a new commercial space transportation bill that builds upon the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, passed by Congress 2015.

“In this coming Congress, I hope to take up another commercial space launch piece of legislation, and a longer-term NASA authorization,” he said.

The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, introduced by Cruz in the Senate in February and signed into law by the president March 21, is intended to be an interim bill that provides stability for NASA during the transition to the new administration, based largely on current programs and authorizing funding only for fiscal year 2017. “Now, in a new year, we have the chance to think bigger and bolder,” he said.

Cruz said later that he had ideas for specific provisions he wanted to see included in the long-term NASA authorization and commercial launch bills, but didn’t identify them, saying he first wanted to seek input on what they should contain. “I’m going to start by listening, which I think is the right approach to take on a long-term vision,” he said.

That included, he said, talking with industry and members of Congress as well as the Trump administration. “We’re going to have, hopefully soon, a new NASA administrator,” he said. “When that happens, I look forward to working closely with the administration for laying out a long-term authorization for NASA: long-term goals, long-term structures.”

He credited extensive discussions with members of Congress for building consensus that led to the passage of the NASA authorization act earlier this year, as well as a similar bill the Senate approved in the final days of the previous Congress in December, despite the strong partisan tensions that exist in Congress today. “It is remarkable that, twice in two years, we’ve been able to achieve bipartisan consensus behind strong, aggressive American leadership in space,” he said.

Cruz used the speech to describe how the authorization bill signed into law a day earlier made it through Congress. Work on the bill started about a year ago to provide certainty for NASA, given what he called the “chaos and uncertainty” created by past transitions. “Whoever won the election, we didn’t want to see that happen,” said Cruz, who, a year ago, was still running for the Republican nomination for president.

Cruz said he worked with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and other senators to develop the bill. He also contacted members of the House to “pre-conference” the bill prior to its Senate passage so that the House could pass the same bill without making changes. “We spent months sitting down with our House counterparts, listening to their priorities, trying to reflect them in the bill,” he said.

An effort to pass the bill last December was stymied, Cruz said, when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) “decided to shut down the Senate for the last three days” in a dispute over pensions for coal miners. The Senate ultimately passed the bill, but only after the House had adjourned for the year.

Cruz and Nelson decided to seek passage of the bill again when the new Congress convened, with some minor changes requested by some members. “That was an important victory,” he said of the authorization act’s passage, although adding that some members wanted a more ambitious bill.

“Let’s start with a firm and steady foundation,” Cruz said in a description of his philosophy about the bill. “You can swing for the fences next time. Let’s start with stability, because stability is critical for long-term planning.”

Cruz said later he supported plans to reestablish the National Space Council, which Vice President Mike Pence said at the authorization bill’s signing ceremony would take place soon. “Reinvigorating a space council, chaired by the vice president, I think is a very positive development,” he said. “Mike has a personal passion for space. I think that’s a good thing.”

Cruz also offered an indirect endorsement of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) for the position of NASA administrator. “We agree on just about everything,” Cruz said of Bridenstine, who had endorsed Cruz during the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination. “I, for one, am excited about the possibilities that he may be serving in a different capacity some time very soon.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...